Vanilla? Nah…I’ll have potato

18 September, 2007

In my earlier posting Leverage is NOT a verb, I mentioned the metaphorical use of the word ‘vanilla’ (as in ‘vanilla report’, ‘vanilla implementation’, ‘vanilla model’ etc.)

On the face of it, vanilla isn’t a bad metaphor for a basic, no-frills version of a product. After all, vanilla is the basic, no-frills ice cream flavour the world over. Isn’t it?

Well, this brings us to the issue of cross-cultural communication here. In Europe and the US, vanilla is indeed the default ice cream flavour. But not everywhere else.

Here in Vietnam for example, you’re just as likely to be given ice cream made from taro, a type of sweet potato, or durian, the foul-smelling fruit banned by most hotels and airlines, and which the novelist Anthony Burgess accurately described as ‘like eating custard in the lavatory’. Vanilla is a more exotic, ‘foreign’ flavour.

In rural Vietnam, as in other huge swathes of the developing world, the scarcity of refrigeration means that ice cream, regardless of flavour, is a rare, exotic delicacy – describe a car model as ‘vanilla’ to someone from a village in Cambodia and in the unlikely event of them understanding you, they’d probably assume you were talking top-of-the-range.

The French have a similar expression to describe pointless exercises or dry runs (mock exams and the like) – ‘c’est pour du beurre’, meaning ‘it’s just for butter’. Butter in France, as in most parts of the developed world, being a basic foodstuff – a vanilla product, if you will. But again, in countries with scarce refrigeration, or in which dairy animals are not reared, butter is an expensive delicacy, so tell someone that what they’re doing is ‘for butter’ and they’ll doubtless be very happy and work harder!

The point being that it can be fun to come up with these seemingly handy business metaphors, but that caution should be exercised when using them inter-culturally – you may well be misunderstood or simply not understood at all.

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